Posted by: joha5 | May 6, 2010

Cultural Chameleon: A Search for Personal Identity

As most of you may – or may not – know, today is a very big day in the United Kingdom: Election Day.  Now before you panic, I am not going to spew out a political diatribe regarding my belief’s and what I want to happen, what I think should happen, and give you my stance on anything from Constitutional Reform to Immigration to Taxes.  What I am more interested in is just how and why I feel so damn English today. 

Unless you are one in a million and you have a solid lineage leading back over a thousand years in the same country then I am sure that you can relate to my sentiment’s today.  What exactly makes you who you are?  In theory, this should be an easy question to consider but, in practice, it is unspeakably difficult.  As for myself, I was born and raised in and around Washington, D.C., I went to school in D.C., I went to college in central Pennsylvania, I have traveled widely through the United States, and the vast majority of my friends are all here.  This should make me feel particularly American.  But it doesn’t necessarily do that.  My mother and my father are both English.  Literally, my entire extended family is English (save for one Swiss cousin who was born to an English mother anyway), I lived in London for more than 5 years, I held my first professional jobs in London, I have traveled extensively through Europe, and I also have a large contingency of amazing friends in England as well.  It is clear that I am one of the two – or both – and it makes for a very interesting dichotomy. 

Do you want me to be even more confusing?  My parent’s separated when I was 7 and my sister and I were essentially raised by my English mother, our Indian ‘Grandmother’, and this was all done in an American household.  No wonder I feel so conflicted.  Then again, the irony is that as far as lineage is concerned, I am technically more ‘English’ than the majority of my friend’s who are actually English – even though I don’t have the cool accent to go with it.  But I don’t necessarily feel ‘English’ either.  It seems like I pick and choose when I want to be American or when I want to be English. 

Duplicity or Multiplicity?

Is this duplicitous of me to do this or do I just accept the fact that I am a person filled with contradictions and multiplicities?  I think both.  Obviously, I not only accept but I embrace the fact that I have such an interesting, diverse, and fantastic background.  I am so thankful to be a dual citizen of both the United States and the United Kingdom.  I can go anywhere I want whenever I want and I can feel at home – even in spite of my very noticeable American accent.  In this sense, I truly love the plurality of nations and people that help to constitute who I am now.  However, it seems like I am going to be doomed to a lifetime of reflection on this matter because when I am in the United States, I often cling to my Englishness but when I am in the United Kingdom, I cling to my Americaness.

Seriously.  Maybe I am feeding some innate desire to be different or maybe it is a case of ‘the grass is always greener on the other side’.  I don’t know.  But what I do know is that I actively embrace my opposing nationality depending on which shore I stand upon.  In the US, I drink English beer when I go out to dinner, I discuss English politics, I tell stories from my time there (so far), I tell people about the aspects of the European lifestyle that I so wish we would embrace in the United States, I listen to English music, I long for English food, and I read books by English authors.  I have even had a few nights out on the town where I will put on an English accent and pretend that I am direct from England just for fun (Note: When I say ‘put on an English accent’ I don’t mean that I am drunk and just sort of start speaking funny.  I literally put on a British accent.  I was trained as an actor for a year and a half and was full trained in a handful of regional accents in the United Kingdom and beyond and when I was learning I even used to use one when I was bartending.  If I could pull off my accent with real people then I knew I had succeeded.  The tough part came when they caught me and would ask me ‘Where the hell are you from’?  Embarrassing to say the least.).  However, when I am in London I do the opposite.  I eat hamburgers at American-style diners, I read and watch American news, I actively hold on to my American accent, I proudly proclaim to people where I am from and what has brought me over to their fair country, I tell people about all of the things I miss about the United States, I brag about all of the fun and strange cultural practices we have, I talk about the beautiful weather, the amazingly nice people, and I use words like ‘dude’ and ‘awesome’ a lot more. 

In the end, there are worse problems to have and bigger things to contemplate.  What makes it so interesting is that everybody can look back on the mix of their cultural heritage, personal experience, family lineage, and individual identity and ask the same question: ‘Just who the hell am I exactly?!’. 

I wish I had the answer myself but maybe I need not look further than my own immediate family.  After all, not one person in my immediate family lives in the same country where they were born…except for me (at the moment).  It makes me think that perhaps this alleged ‘choice’ for a nomadic lifestyle isn’t exactly as optional as I thought it was in the first place.  I am a duplicitous individual wrapped in a tangled web of multiplicities.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.


Responses

  1. You become part of the country that you were raised in even though you are English you are culturally American so, I guess that makes you “AmeriGlish”…LOL

    • It’s a very strange dichotomy. Culturally there is no doubt that I am American because it is what I grew up with and was exposed to for the vast majority of my life. But how much does culture make up our individual identity? Obviously, quite a bit but isn’t it up to the person to identify how they most feel comfortable? How about family history? Parents? Grandparents? It’s all very murky to me. However, I think the term Ameriglish (Englican?!) captures my identity perfectly. Thanks Ramona! You are a star!

  2. You are as American as ancestors of most Americans! I think it’s awesome you embrace both!

    • I must admit that it is definitely fun to be able to pick and choose when I feel like it but overall I just consider myself fortunate to have that option in the first place! How about you – where are your ancestors from?!

  3. how nice to see all that Cultural Studies masters work coming into play. :) I sometimes feel this on a micro-scale as I acclimate to California culture after living in Virginia for so long…I really liked this post.

    • Thanks Libby! I know you are a big supporter of all things to do with cultural and identity politics (even if I force you to read my stuff and edit it!). The difference from DC/VA to SoCal is definitely more on the macro scale than micro as far as what I have experienced! We may as well be two separate countries! ;)

  4. Filipinos have always been mishmash of different cultures due to so many countries colonizing us, US, Japan and Spain, and the ease in which people have moved here. I don’t feel conflicted like you do, but I always been interested in seeing how the rest of the country lives. I just put in a perspective that no matter how different we are, we are still the same, somehow. :)

    • Clarissa, I could not agree with you more about how we are all more similar than different. I think you have totally captured the essence of what I was trying to say in my post and I can’t thank you enough for sharing. People are people and nobody is better or worse than anybody else. Thanks again and please come back and add your comments frequently!

  5. Very much enjoyed reading your post. Curious about your indian grandmother. I think you can’t be put into a box and that makes you so much more interesting. I can relate to your multiplicities being a second generation Singaporean but feeling more of a sense of attachment with Ceylon/ Sri Lanka where my grandparents came from. On the other hand I wish I had been born in the US cos the people are so vibrant and so much more alive :)

    • I have traveled through the United States, most of Europe, and parts of southern Africa but have yet to make it over to Asia and the Pacific. India is absolutely next on my list of places where I want to go. I wish I could ofer you a comparison of my opinions of Americans and/or Singaporeans and Sri Lankans. Have you ever visited the United States before? Thanks so much for coming back today and reading my post! Talk to you very soon!!


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